Today was the latest installment of the never-ending Clinton scandal saga, but it won’t be the last. Yet in some ways, the specifics are a distraction. The sale of access was designed into the post-2001 Clinton family finances from the start. Probably nobody will ever prove that this quid led to that quo … but there’s about a quarter-billion-dollar of quid heaped in plain sight and an equally impressive pile of quo, and it’s all been visible for years to anyone who cared to notice. As Jonathan Chait, who is no right-wing noise-machine operator, complained: “The Clintons have been disorganized and greedy.”
“All of this amounts to diddly-squat,” pronounced long-time Clinton associate James Carville when news broke that Hillary Clinton had erased huge numbers of emails. That may not be true: If any of the conduct in question proves illegal, destroying relevant records may also have run afoul of the law.
But Carville’s dismissal is right as a matter of politics. Scandals, even quite bad ones, tend not to matter as much as they used to, unless the person at the center is sentenced to prison. The impulse to rally to the team is strong, and this impulse has been used shrewdly by the Clinton family over the course of their long, ethically challenged career. They will try to exploit that impulse again now.
There is one condition under which the “rally around our team” strategy does not work, and that is when partisans have not yet chosen who will lead their team. In 2008, George Packer elegantly reported the after-the-fact surge of Clinton scandal revulsion that swayed Democrats as they faced the choice between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. “I’m not sure I want the circus back in town,” sighed a Clinton associate. Former Clinton lawyer Greg Craig acknowledged that he found the strategy of surviving crises by “playing the embattled, beleaguered victim” to be “unappealing and depressing.” Former White House spokeswoman Dee Dee Myers observed, “In her personal life, she’s always seemed like she had something to hide."
Democrats could say those things in 2008 because they faced then a meaningful choice of candidates. As they decided between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, they weighed not only what was attractive about each, but what was unattractive about the other. In that balance, the Clinton scandals of the 1990s—and the post-presidential finances of the Clintons in the 2000s—tipped the balance for many Democrats in favor of “no drama Obama."
You can see how choice liberates thought in the contrasting wide-open Republican primary. Republicans are talking about the legacy of the George W. Bush presidency, about the risks of political dynasty, about uncomfortable issues like immigration and economic immobility. If Jeb Bush had somehow managed to lock up all the party’s funding and deter credible alternatives from entering the race, Republicans would bite back their concerns as Democrats are biting back theirs. They’d feel they had to.
There’s no denying that open discussion of difficult issues can often divide and hurt parties. Awkward as they are, however, those discussions often save parties from mistakes. By now it’s clear that a Clinton-led Democratic party will have to deal with an unending stream of ethics questions between now and the 2016 vote—and that a Clinton administration, should Hillary Clinton win, will be secretive, untruthful, and haunted by the legacy of a family fortune accumulated in some considerable part by the apparent sale of access and favors. Is that what Democrats want? They may want it more than they want a Republican administration. But wouldn’t they prefer a different kind of Democratic administration?
Barack Obama has come under relentless attack since 2009. That’s the new normal in presidential politics. Opponents bore in heavily on George W. Bush too. The last president who received any substantial deference from the other party in Congress was Ronald Reagan, and he didn’t receive much. In this difficult environment, President Obama’s high personal integrity provided a bulwark of security for his party. Whatever policy failures have occurred, whatever errors and mistakes of judgment, nobody not lurking in the fever swamps has ever questioned that this president is acting to serve the public interest as he sees it. That wasn’t the case in the Bill Clinton presidency, and it will be even less the case in a Hillary Clinton presidency.
Democrats are hunkered behind Hillary Clinton because they imagine they have no other choice. Just as Republicans rethought their support for New Jersey Governor Chris Christie in the face of adverse new information, just as Jeb Bush’s juggernaut has been slowed for party inspection, so Democrats could still do otherwise. Democrats have Senator Elizabeth Warren if they want someone who can ignite the progressive base as Barack Obama did in 2008. They have Vice President Joe Biden, if they want to continue the Obama administration’s domestic record, while retooling foreign policy along more traditional Truman-Kennedy lines. If they want to reach for centrist voters, they have plausible past and current governors from Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and Colorado. Nor is there any valid reason for them to dismiss as unworthy of consideration the presidential bid of Maryland’s two-term governor, Martin O’Malley.
When a Republican like myself queries Democrats as to whether they really wish to “bring the circus back to town," the question is typically dismissed as “concern trolling.” Translated into plain English: “You’re just trying to score a partisan point, it’s a trap, nothing here I need to think about.” The best rebuttal to that kind of self-blinding comes from Malcolm X: “I’m for the truth, whoever says it.”
It’s not trolling if it’s true, and nothing is more true in presidential politics right now than this: The whiff of corruption and deceit will linger about the Clinton candidacy to voting day—and waft through the corridors of a Clinton presidency even if the greater potential strength of the Democratic presidential coalition overcomes the bad odor around its candidate. Yet politics won’t stop on the first Tuesday of November 2016. The truths exposed about the Clinton candidacy will shape and even define a Clinton presidency. That should matter as much to those who hope for a popular and effective Democratic administration after 2016 as to those who hope to prevent one.